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SELMA Movie Review – Timely, Essential Filmmaking

For some, possibly even many, the Civil Rights Era isn’t just the distant past, but something to be read about, studied in classrooms, with little or no relevance to our collective present. That perspective, however, betrays a willful ignorance or blindness, to the Civil Rights Era, an era that actually never ended (because racial justice still isn’t a given), and contemporary American politics (because we don’t, in fact, live in a “post-racial society”). The need to correct that perspective makes the Martin Luther King, Jr.-focused, civil rights drama, Selma, ably directed by Ava DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere, I Will Follow) from a screenplay written by Paul Webb, timely, relevant, and quite possibly essential filmmaking. More than that, however, DuVernay has crafted an incredibly astute, provocative, penetrating study both of Martin Luther King, Jr. the man behind the myth and the social-political movement he led five decades ago.

A historical drama about Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) could easily slip into hagiography and the usual assortment of “Great Man” biopic clichés. After all, the MLK we meet in history books and documentaries almost seems superhuman, a towering, mythic figure, tragically cut down in the prime of life, guaranteeing him secular sainthood. An unmatched orator, MLK could and did stir thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, with his vision, a vision cultivated through intense study and participation in a decade-long social and political movement, to action. With his call for non-violent protest, he, along with so many lesser known, sometimes unsung leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), led a movement that not helped to change or upend racial discrimination laws, but helped to change, albeit only partial, the greater culture at large.

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DuVernay, however, smartly focuses not just on MLK (a star-making turn by David Oyelowo) the man, but on an MLK at a particular crossroads on the still incomplete journey toward social justice. Rather than making the error of so many “Great Man” biopics, DuVernay focuses on a key moment in time, the three, momentous months in 1965 that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) – the same VRA recently gutted by the conservative U.S. Supreme Court. To put pressure on Lyndon B. Johnson’s (Tom Wilkinson) administration, MLK and the SCLC decide to march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama, the state capitol. This MLK, however, doesn’t have the benefit of history to vindicate or confirm the choices he makes. He’s weighed down by the real personal and physical risks demonstrators will (and had) taken, up to and including their lives to white supremacists in and out of the police force.

Just as smartly, DuVernay highlights the internal conflicts and discussions between MLK and other key members of the SCLC, including Reverend Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), James Bevel (Common), Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). One member of the SNCC (and future long-term congressman), John Lewis (Stephan James), but it’s obvious that the SNCC (all two members) see MLK and the SCLC as interlopers. There’s more than a hint of jealousy and envy toward MLK and his position, earned or not, as the de facto “voice of a movement.” It’s those moments, the strategizing, the exchange of ideas and doubts, the expression of fears and anxieties that don’t so much elevate Selma, but bring it down to earth, turning icons into living, breathing human beings.

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DuVernay also takes time to balance MLK the social activist and leader with MLK the husband and father. When MLK returns home after a long period away, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) treats him like any wife would treat a returning husband, with a mix of happiness and frustration. And while she naturally frets at the personal risks MLK takes on a daily basis, she has agency of her own. At one point, she meets Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), a decision that MLK questions. Later, in one of the most devastating scenes in Selma, she confronts MLK’s alleged infidelities head-on. The FBI sent audiotapes supposedly of MLK with other women to create a rift in their relationship. It doesn’t work.

Audiences still get MLK the unparalleled, charismatic orator, but the speeches moviegoers will hear in Selma were never made by MLK. Due to rights issues involving MLK’s estate, DuVernay was forced to write MLK’s speeches in the film from scratch. That they retain the cadence, the rhythm, the rhetorical devices, and the literary allusions that MLK’s actual speeches so memorable are an obvious testament to DuVernay’s deep familiarity with MLK’s speeches and her own literary gifts as a writer. And while DuVernay doesn’t completely escape the problems typical of “Great Man” biopics – specifically recognizable or name actors in cameos or bit parts or the tendency to underline the meaning of key moments through dialogue – they bear relatively little impact on an otherwise enthralling, gripping historical drama.

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The Author

Mel Valentin

Mel Valentin

Mel Valentin hails from the great state of New Jersey. After attending NYU undergrad (politics and economics major, religious studies minor) and grad school (law), he decided a transcontinental move to California, specifically San Francisco, was in order. Since Mel began writing nine years ago, he's written more than 1,600 film-related reviews and articles. He's a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.